If any of you people ever again invite Steven Brill to speak at your journalism conference, or comment for your media article, shame on you.
Brill's Content magazine -- the "media watchdog" that proposes anal new conflict-disclosure measures nearly every month -- just published its first issue since the incredible news that its editor/publisher had launched a new e-commerce company with several of the media companies he covers (such as CBS and NBC). And the only real mention of the conflict-riddled new arrangement is a deeply dishonest final paragraph of Brill's own column about how media conglomerates should be heavily regulated by the federal government.
"In a small way, we have now become one such organization," he wrote. "This is a separate business from the magazine, with separate ownership; and by contract these media company investors in the other business disclaim any involvement in the editorial content of the magazine. But there's still an indirect connection."
Earth to Steve -- it's bad form for a media moralizer to lie.
To call Brill's Content and the still-unbuilt Contentville.com "separate" businesses with "separate ownership" is a Bill Clinton-caliber evasion. Brill Media Holdings, a company headed and named after CEO Steven Brill, launched Brill's Content in 1998, and owns 34 percent of Contentville. Brill's Content and Contentville will have the same editor (David Kuhn), same publisher and CEO (Steven Brill), will work in the same office and share some of the same editorial content, according to company statements and press reports. Brill will continue editing articles for both companies.
Contentville's main investors are CBS, NBC, TheStreet.com founder James Cramer, magazine seller Primedia, magazine-subscription servicer EBSCO and book wholesaler Ingram Book Group. According to a Brill press release, it will give "really independent, non-hyped recommendations" of books, magazines and television transcripts -- and make its money selling what it recommends.
Basically, it's like Ralph Nader starting an e-commerce venture with Chevrolet to sell used Corvairs, or Consumer Reports launching a Web site with Procter & Gamble.
Given that Brill himself has called for writers and publications to make a disclosure whenever they "have a financial interest in the stories" they print, (see "Bye Bye, Brill," in OJR, Feb. 10), Brill's Content should accordingly reveal the Contentville partnership every time it writes about: NBC, CBS and their competitors (Disney/ABC, AOL/Time Warner, News Corp., USA Networks -- whose chief Barry Diller is already an investor in Brill Media Holdings); TheStreet.com and its competitors (Red Herring, Industry Standard, CBS Marketwatch, Dow Jones, and dozens of others); Amazon.com and its competitors (BN.com, the New York Times Co., any e-retailer). Not to mention a quickie paragraph in every magazine review and book review, just for starters.
Yet in the new issue, there is nothing I could find besides a brief disclosure underneath an interview with Contentville investor James Cramer (who is nevertheless not identified as an occasional Brill's Content contributor), plus Brill's distorting little mention -- which, believe it or not, is presented as proof of how Brill's Content will set the ethical standard for conflicted media companies. Magazine ombudsman Bill Kovach spends his April column discussing "what, exactly, is this thing called journalism?" Editor Eric Effron, who in the Feburary issue wrote memorably about how Brill violated his journalistic "virginity" by creating advertising-motivated special sections when they were both at the Legal Times, spends his post-Contentville "Big Blur" column talking about how his kids use eBay.
Among the many instances that the Contentville deal should have been disclosed, according to Brill orthodoxy:
And so on.
Brill's Content editors will likely argue that the April issue came too soon to deal with the Feb. 2 announcement introducing Contentville. Fine, but they disclosed it on page 114 and let Steve Brill fudge about it on page 27, so why not disclose it elsewhere?
According to Effron, we can expect a thorough self-examination in the May issue, including many letters and a report from Bill Kovach. (I was asked to modify my previous OJR column for the issue, and after I did Effron said it would be "overkill" to run it). Presumably we'll find out next month how a fundamentally conflicted media watchdog takes its own medicine, and how it can justify the breathtaking hypocrisy of its actions.
Judging by Brill's own words in the April issue, we have a lot of Clintonesque spinning and back-pedaling ahead of us. Suddenly, those who examine how a news organization covers its corporate partners and competitors are "media-conspiracy theorists" who enjoy "this parlor game of 'find the hidden motive.'" Suddenly it's important to stress that "traditional, independent news entities don't have a monopoly on virtue."
Bill Kovach -- named in a recent Editor & Publisher profile as "the conscience of American journalism" -- will now provide Brill an ethical smokescreen by investigating "any complaints from anyone on our editorial staff concerning our treatment of the media companies with whom the magazine now has a connection, albeit an indirect one," according to the boss. (And, in classic Brill fashion, he now insists that all other media conglomerates follow his lead or face federal sanctions).
Enough, already. If Bill Kovach wants to be used like a journalistic whitewash, that's his business. But if Steve Brill keeps insisting on his self-appointed role as journalism's arbiter, that's ours. The least we can do is point out how he has become the embodiment of the "increasingly arrogant and defensive media" he was supposed to skewer.
NOTE: OJR Editor Robert Scheer is also a contributing
writer for Brill's Content, and recused himself from the editing of this